The French Revolution of 1789 had many long-range causes. Political, social, and economic conditions in France contributed to the discontent felt by many French people-especially those of the third estate. The ideas of the intellectuals of the Enlightenment brought new views to government and society. The American Revolution also influenced the coming of the French Revolution. The Philosophes planted the seeds for the French Revolution. Their goals were to expose and destroy the inequalities of the ancient regime (old order).
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The political discontent of France was one of the causes of the Revolution. In the 17th and 18th centuries, France was ruled by an absolute government. The king had all the political powers. Anyone who criticized the government could be arrested and put in prison without trial. Louis XVI was king at the time of the French Revolution. He was more interested in hunting than governing France. He and his Austrian queen, Marie Antoinette, lived an extravagant life at the Palace of Versailles. They did not really care about the state of their country. The excerpt from the cahiers mentioned in document 3 shows that the votes in the assembly were not taken by head. The people of the 3rd estate felt a sense of betrayal when the king supported the block voting over the head voting. The first two estates worked together to outvote the large third estate to keep them from becoming a threat to the power. Lord Acton, an Englishmen, states that the monarchy being overthrown wasn’t the spark of the Revolution. He recognizes the American Independence as the spark of the French Revolution. The French government was inefficient, unjust and corrupt. There were numerous government departments, different laws in different parts of the country and officials. Many people became livid at the way France was governed. The people couldn’t do anything to bring about a change. The French Parlement was called the Estates-General. It had not met since 1614 and couldn’t without the consent of the king. It basically had no power.
The economic problems created by the French kings also contributed to the Revolution. During the 18th century, the French government spent more money than it collected in taxes. By 1788, the country was bankrupt. Arthur Young, an Englishmen and observer, who traveled to France from 1787 to 1789 angrily describes the living conditions of the peasants in his book Travels in France. The amount of tax each person must pay is unfair. Landholders found in the nobility weren’t taxed much. The landholders found in the commoners were taxed heavily. There was lack of bread. The price of bread was a lot higher then one’s ability to pay which caused great misery for the people of France. Most of the money was spent on wars. France had been at war for nearly 50 years out of the previous one hundred years. France supported the Americans in the American War of the Independence. After that, France was in financial ruins. A large sum of money was also spent on palaces, entertainment and gifts by the kings of France. The government spent a lot of money which put forth high taxes. The tax system was unjust. The nobles and the clergy hardly paid any tax. The Church owned one-tenth of the land in France and did not pay any taxes. The peasants were the victims of the heavy taxation. Louis XVI tried to reform the taxation system but the nobility and the clergy refused to accept the new reforms. Therefore, the king was unable to make any financial reforms. The gabelle, salt tax, was also levied by the French Kings. When Jacques Turgot tried to impose the corvee, tax on land property, he was opposed by the nobility. He failed to pass the corvee and was dismissed by Louis XVI..
Social problems were also a major factor that brought about the French Revolution. In the 18th century, France was a feudal country with class divisions. People were divided into three estates. The First Estate consisted of the clergy. The Second consisted of the nobility, and the Third included the bourgeoisie, the city workers and the peasants. The state you belonged to decided your power and rights. Document 2 shows the social class distinctions. The first estate was made up of 1% of the people and owned 10% of the land in France. The second estate consisted of 2% of the people and owned 35% of the land. The third estate held 97% of the people who owned 55% of the land. The people-to-land proportion was unjust looking at the amount of people in each estate. The third estate held very little land compared to the amount of people it had. It was overcrowded. The first and the second estate were the privileged classes. They clergy and the nobility were exempt from many taxes. They had to pay about four-fifths of their income on tax. They also needed to pay the land tax: also the taxes on property, roads, and salt. The third estate was the most discontented class. The bourgeoisie were well educated. They were strongly influenced by the ideas of Voltaire and Rousseau who attacked the injustices of the time. Rousseau believed that people are basically good but become corrupted by society. In an ideal society, people would make the laws and would obey them willingly. Probably the most famous of the philisophes was Francois-Marie Arouet who took the name Voltaire. He used biting wit as a weapon to expose the abuses of his day. He targeted corrupt officials and idle aristocrats. With his pen, he battled inequality, injustice, and superstition. He detested the slave trade and deplored religious prejudice. They resented the privileges of the nobility and wanted a larger role in state affairs. City workers were angry because their wages were not enough to buy goods when prices were going up rapidly. The peasants made up 80% of the population and had to pay heavy taxes. In his book The French Revolution, Albert Mathiez states that the Revolution was caused by the middle classes. The working classes weren’t able to control or start the Revolution. They were just starting to learn how to read. French peasants were subject to certain feudal dues, called banalities. These included the required used-for-payment of the lord’s mill to grind grain and his oven to bake bread. The lord could also require a certain number of days each year of the peasant’s labor. Peasants were targeted by society. They couldn’t do anything on there own or try to fight back.
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The French Revolution was caused by social, political and economic problems. People were in discontent with the king. The first two estates were privileged and the third was very unprivileged and had to pay heavy taxes. The third estate did not get along with the first two. French kings spent a lot of money on wars. They spent more money then they made. It was time for a change in France.
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